In Naming the Era Committee Members, the Hall Again Can’t Avoid the Specter of Cronyism

© Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s not hard to muster some cynicism when it comes to the Era Committee voting. Like the various iterations of the Veterans Committees that proceeded it, the small panels of Hall of Famers, executives, and media members tasked with evaluating Era Committee ballots inevitably include voters with strong connections to the candidates, and with that, some potential for cronyism. This isn’t an abstraction confined to the dusky past, not when it was just three years ago that Harold Baines was elected by a Today’s Game panel that included White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, manager Tony La Russa, and general manager Pat Gillick, all of whom had overseen significant stretches of Baines’ career, creating conflicts of interest that almost certainly aided his election. Thus one couldn’t help raise an eyebrow on Monday after the Hall announced the 16 voters who will serve on the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee. The group will vote on eight candidates on Sunday, December 4, at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.

As ever, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots between the panelists and the eight candidates and think about what that might portend, particularly when the ballot’s most notorious player, Barry Bonds, appears to be the orphan of the bunch. The all-time home run leader and seven-time MVP has the credentials for Cooperstown, obviously, but the allegations concerning his connection to performance-enhancing drugs kept him from reaching 75% of the vote at any time during his 10-year run on the BBWAA ballot. Now he’s within a process that allows the Hall to stack the deck against him.

Each Era Committee is appointed by the Hall of Fame board of directors and chaired by Hall chairman of the board Jane Forbes Clark (as a non-voting member). Usually the configuration is something like eight Hall of Famers, four executives and four media members/historians, but that’s not etched in stone. This one has seven Hall of Famers, six execs, and three media members:

Before I get to my nitpicking, it’s worth acknowledging the diversity of the panel. In an industry that’s sorely lacking on that score, both within the front office and the media, the committee nonetheless includes the Mexican-American owner of the Angels (Moreno), the Black executive vice president of the White Sox (Williams), and the Asian-American general manager of the Marlins (Ng). Ng is also the game’s first female GM, while Slusser was the first female president of the BBWAA — making this the first committee with two female voters, as best I can tell — and Neal the first Black president of the BBWAA. On that front, the Hall deserves a nod.

What’s a bit odd is how closely identified the careers of the Hall of Famers are among just four teams, the Braves (Jones and Maddux), Cubs (Maddux, Sandberg, and Smith), White Sox (Thomas), and Tigers (Morris and Trammell). All but Jones and Trammell did actually play for other teams, but Thomas never left the AL, and likewise for Maddux and Sandberg with regards to the NL. It might be nice to have a group that circulated more throughout the game, though that would also increase the odds of players being teammates with the candidates.

As for those candidates, at first glance, this panel appears to be tilted towards Fred McGriff, who to these eyes already appeared to be the most likely honoree. During his 1993-97 run with the Braves, the Crime Dog was not only teammates with both Jones and Maddux, but helped them win a championship in ’95. Even before that, he broke in with the Blue Jays, for whom Beeston was the executive vice president and then president/chief operating officer during his 1986-90 tenure in Toronto. McGriff was also briefly teammates with Williams, who’s surely a better executive than he was a baserunner, at least with the Blue Jays.

Speaking of Beeston, he additionally recruited free agent Roger Clemens, who signed with the Blue Jays in December 1996. Before Clemens won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards in Toronto the following year, however, Beeston had joined the commissioner’s office as the president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball.

Oddly, the other candidate whose connections jump out the most after McGriff’s is Rafael Palmeiro, whose 2005 positive test for Winstrol trumped his Hall-caliber milestones. As a Cub from 1986-88, he was teammates with Maddux, Sandberg, and Smith. He even gave his son and future indy-ball teammate Patrick Palmeiro the middle name Ryne. Over on the South Side of Chicago, Albert Belle was teammates with Thomas in 1997 and ’98. Williams became the team’s vice president of player development in 1997 but probably wouldn’t have had much to do with the major league side at that point.

Don Mattingly was ever so briefly teammates with Smith, who was traded to the Yankees on August 31, 1993 and finished the season with them. More substantially, Mattingly coached the Dodgers while Ng was an assistant GM there (2005 to early ’11), and then managed the Marlins while Ng was GM in 2021 and ’22.

And of course, Curt Schilling helped the Red Sox win two World Series during his four-year run in Boston (2004-07) while Theo Epstein was general manager.

Neither Bonds nor Dale Murphy have any former teammates or executives on the committee. Murphy played his last game for the Braves on August 2, 1990, about two months after Jones was the first pick of that year’s amateur draft. I’m not sure if he ever served as a spring instructor for the Braves during Jones’ tenure, but the pair have crossed paths in retirement in the service of selling tickets and otherwise representing the team within the community. Murphy did coach first base for Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic under one of his former Braves managers, Joe Torre, while Maddux served as the pitching coach. So there’s that.

All of which leaves Bonds as the least connected of the bunch, without a single teammate or executive from his career. It is worth noting that among the media members, he and Clemens did get the votes of both Neal (who covers the Twins for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and Slusser (who after over two decades of covering the A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle switched over to the Giants’ beat in 2021) on the last six BBAA ballots in which they appeared. I’ve noted many times that after excluding both from her 2013-16 ballots, Slusser publicly explained her change of heart in December 2016, after the Today’s Game Era Committee elected former commissioner Bud Selig. “Senseless to keep steroid guys out when the enablers are in Hall of Fame,” she tweeted, adding, “I now will hold my nose and vote for players I believe cheated.” With several other voters of similar mind, Bonds and Clemens both crossed the 50% threshold that year after gaining about nine percentage points; the following November found Hall board member Joe Morgan putting his thumb on the scale on behalf of the institution by issuing an open plea to voters not to elect PED-linked candidates, which stalled both candidates’ momentum.

Unlike Slusser, who publicly explains her ballots before the results are announced, I can’t find any similar explanation from Neal, who according to the data in Ryan Thibodaux’s indispensable Ballot Tracker waits until after the results to reveal his ballot. As for Hirdt, who spent more than 20 years as the executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau before moving (along with his brother Peter) to Stats Perform in 2019, he has never published his ballot. He’s served on every Era Committee going back to the 2013 Pre-Integration one, and some VCs before that; he’s additionally been part of the Historical Overview Committee that builds the ballots as well going back to at least 2005 (as far back as I’ve found). Slusser was on this year’s Historical Overview Committee as well; such crossover isn’t common but it’s not unheard of.

On the subject of PEDs, Sandberg was publicly against Sammy Sosa’s election due to the slugger’s connection to PEDs, but it was Thomas who amassed a track record of public declarations on the subject that sets him apart from his peers. He was vocally in favor of testing as far back as 1995. In 2003, he was among the White Sox players who boycotted the survey test on the grounds that doing so would increase the chances of introducing mandatory testing, and four years later, he was the rare player who voluntarily cooperated with the Mitchell Report. Even so, in 2017, Thomas did say that Bonds and Clemens should be in given the elections of Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, neither of whom ever failed a test but both of whom were connected by allegations.

In an insular industry, it would be very difficult to find a full slate of voters who did not have some kind of connection to the candidates beyond playing against them. Nonetheless, the committee system’s history has often resulted in comparatively poor choices for induction, choices so often traceable to links between teammates. As I noted in The Cooperstown Casebook in 2017, five of the selections on Veterans Committees that included Frankie Frisch (1967-72), Bill Terry and Waite Hoyt (both 1971-76) rank dead last among the Hall of Famers at their positions in JAWS, namely starting pitcher Jesse Haines, first baseman High Pockets Kelly, third baseman Fred Lindstrom, left fielder Chick Hafey, and center fielder Lloyd Waner, all of whom were former teammates of one or two of the aforementioned VC members. Baines isn’t dead last among enshrined right fielders — that “honor” belongs to 19th-century player Tommy McCarthy — but he’s 76th in JAWS, the lowest ranking of any position player elected since I introduced my system during the 2004 cycle.

Not that the VC process was pure before Frisch and company rolled into Cooperstown. In his 1994 book The Politics of Glory, Bill James cited the 1945 and ’46 mass election of 21 candidates by the Old Timers Committee (the VC’s forerunner for non-BBWAA candidates) as the point at which “the argument that the Hall of Fame should be only for the greatest of the great was irretrievably lost.” However, it’s been continued waves of results with more than a hint of cronyism that have cost the institution legitimacy in the eyes of at least some observers, and the continued adherence to the process — even as the number of candidates, slots per ballot, and timespan under evaluation changes — does it no favors. I’ve suggested before that simply doubling the size of the committee (to 32 members) and having anybody with firsthand connections (teammate or exec) recuse themselves from voting on that particular candidate would bolster public confidence in these elections. The Hall itself obviously sees it differently. There’s no system or election result that will satisfy everybody, but the institution’s insistence on maintaining this system almost guarantees that the results will be called into question.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

A great irony that the Hall cares so much about the integrity of its honorees that it’s willing to sacrifice its own to keep them out.

1 year ago
Reply to  Paul-SF

I don’t think that’s how integrity works…